Helen of Troy in Cuba

A Havana agro market

By Lorenzo Martin Martines

HAVANA TIMES – Getting old must be devastating. It scares me at least. I’ve become more sensitive, more sympathetic with age. Believe me, being too sympathetic hurts sometimes. You’d like to help solve other people’s problems without realizing that your own life has more problems than a math textbook.

Today, I changed the last 30 euros that I had left from the money my daughter sends me. She sends them by card like every Cuban, but I don’t sell it to the bank that only pays me 120 pesos per euro. Here, I sell it by transferring it to someone for the street price, and I managed to sell them for 170 pesos each today, a lot more than what the State would have paid me.

I ran to the agro-market with my 5100 pesos, because if I hold onto it too long it slips through my fingers on a couple of treats and cigarettes. Well, they vanished anyway from my hands on the shopping, but at least I managed to get food for the coming days, not a lot, but something.

I bought 10 lbs. of rice, 600 pesos. Five lbs. of black beans because they are the cheapest, at 140 pesos each, 700 pesos in total. Two jars of aji cachucha peppers 80 pesos. A bunch of chives for 100 pesos, because my eyes teared up just looking at the price of onions. A pound of garlic, just 4 bulbs, for 250 pesos. I bought a tray of 30 eggs, the Cuban people’s lifesaver, for 1200 pesos and I was grateful just to find them. Two packs of croquettes for 150 pesos each. I also bought an avocado – I have to give myself one treat -, for 50 pesos. A couple of pounds of cassava for 30 pesos each, that was another 60. 

On my way home, I took advantage of the fact there wasn’t a line at the bodega store to get all of my rations, so I wouldn’t have to go again. I spent 600 pesos there on some groceries that are getting more and more expensive and don’t stretch as far. By the way, cooking oil didn’t come in this month, and they were only offering one pound of rice, because they said that there have been delays with the delivery and that the rest will come in after the 15th.

I bought a couple of packets of cigarettes for 200 pesos each, and I ended up buying a bottle of cooking oil on the street for 700 pesos, otherwise I’d have to eat boiled eggs and baked croquettes.

I spent 5040 in total, out of the 5100 pesos I started off with, which made me wonder how people get by if they don’t receive remittances and are living off their wages, or worse yet, a pension. Life made sure to give me an answer just a few minutes later.

Helen of Troy

Almost back home with my precious load, I ran into a woman selling a pack of bodega-store coffee, which doesn’t have a lot of coffee in it but we’re used to thats.

  • “How much is the coffee, madre?” I asked, looking for the rest of the money in my wallet and praying the price hadn’t gone up.
  • “60 pesos, mi hijito, but I’ll give it to you for 50, I need to sell it now,” she told me in a clear voice despite her years, a voice that reminded me of someone.
  • “Don’t worry madre, I’ll pay you the 60, I’ll get some more money,” I replied, letting go of my last cents. I’ll have to walk to my mother’s house if I don’t do something before the weekend, I thought.
  • “I’m selling it so I can buy a couple cubes of chicken bullion, hijo, so I can make yellow rice, with rice my neighbor gave me because it had weevils in, but I cleaned it properly and it’s OK now. I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday at noon, and that was just a bodega store bread roll with sugar water. They haven’t sold bread today because they’re still waiting for the flour to come in.”

I have to admit I never give handouts. It might seem stingy or indifferent, but in my experience, it normally ends up being spent on alcohol. But this case really moved me. I don’t know if it was the woman’s age, going hand-in-hand with her way of asking, or whether it was the clear and sweet voice she had that reminded me of a familiar voice, or maybe it was because she looked like my mother, but my heart broke into a thousand pieces.

  • “If you come with me to the house, I’ll invite you to lunch, it isn’t much, but at least you’ll have some lunch, madre. I live half a block away, it isn’t far,” I offered feeling sorry for her.
  • “How can I accept that? No, mijo, no, I’m going to my home now and I’ll make something, thanks for everything,” she said showing more dignity than necessity.
  • “I insist, come with me, whatever I don’t eat is going to go off anyway, because I’ve already heated it up before and plus, I don’t like to eat on my own. I’d really like it if you came with me, you could be my mother and I’d like to think somebody would invite her to a meal if she ever went without eating.”
  • “I’m dying of shame, mijo, I can’t,” she repeated.
  • “Let’s go, please,” I insisted once and for all, while stretching out my hand.

Red in the face like a tomato, she grabbed my arm to get up and began to walk next to me. After my offer, I was left speechless, I didn’t know what to say, I just felt like I was doing the right thing.

  • “I’m not used to doing this, mijo, I’m dying of shame. I’m not a businesswoman, I don’t like to ask for things,” she told me on our way to my building.

Despite her age, she was quite agile going up the stairs that separate my second-floor apartment from the street. We ran into Finita in the hallway, like I normally do, who is always nosing around about visits, maybe she was even jealous to see me with another elderly woman that wasn’t her, and she asked:

  • “You have a visitor?”
  • “I have a visitor and if you behave, come, I’m making coffee,” I replied, warning her to behave properly because the truth is she’s quite nosy, not to say a gossip.

Once inside, I asked the old lady to sit down and gave the pack of coffee to Finita with the task of making it herself in my kitchen. I heated up the congri (rice and beans) from the day before and took out the left-overs of the green-bean salad I’d made. That and a cheese omelette would be today’s lunch.

Once the coffee was strained, I went back to the living room with a cup of the steaming black mixture for the woman, who had perched herself on an armchair like someone who doesn’t want to be seen, taking up the least amount of space possible.

Finita came along with the coffee, and her interrogation also came…

  • “I know you from somewhere. “But I can’t put my finger on it,” blurted out Finita.
  • “I was a teacher at the Pre-University on the other block, for many years,” the woman replied.

It was at that exact moment that I understood why her voice sounded so familiar. It’s incredible that 35 years after my years at the Pre-University, I’d run into the most beautiful teacher from my time as a student. She never taught me directly, but everyone at my school knew her. Elena, the literature teacher. We used to call her “Helen of Troy” because of her beauty, the passionate way she’d read “The Iliad” and for being a bone of contention, word had it, between two teachers at the same school, who even had a fist fight and never spoke to each other again. I was sad to see the ravages Time had left on such a beautiful woman.

  • “Yes, of course, you used to give classes to all the kids in the neighborhood and all the young men were crazy about you. Did you come to visit your student?” the interrogation continued.
  • “I don’t remember if he was my student, I’ve forgotten lots of faces. Things become blurry with age,” Elena said embarrassed, as she searched my face for a memory.
  • “Well, Fina, leave us alone now, I need to speak to the profe (teacher),” I cut the interrogation off just as it was starting.
  • Niño, I didn’t teach you to be so rude, leave me alone, you need me,” Finita said pretending to be angry. “Well, profe, I’m leaving you in good hands, he’s the best we’ve got in the building, when he doesn’t get nasty.”

I ignored Fina, excused myself and went to the kitchen to make the omelettes and serve the food. The rice was already warm and ready to serve. I came back to the living room and set the table. I helped my guest to sit with me and we ate our food in silence. Food that Elena ate very politely, but without really taking a breather. It was clear she was very hungry.

 I served another coffee afterwards and we sat in the living room to enjoy it.

  • “You don’t know how embarassed I am, I have no way to pay you back for what you’ve done: you bought the pack of coffee from me and then you make me the coffee and invite me for lunch. I don’t know how to thank you,” she said without looking up from the floor. Once her pangs of hunger had appeased, she was embarrassed again.
  • “I’m happy just knowing you’re feeling better, profe.”
  • “Were you my student?” she inquired, red again.
  • “No, profe, but because you said yourself you were a teacher, I’ll treat you like one,” I lied not knowing why exactly. Maybe I didn’t want her to feel ashamed in front of a former student.
  • “Yes, I was a teacher at the Pre-University until I retired, 42 years as a teacher, they went flying by. Look now, though, nobody remembers me…” I liked that the woman recognized me.
  • “I’m sure lots of your students will still remember you, but everyone walks their own path and we’re not so close anymore, profe,” I wanted to ease her nostalgia a little.
  • “Look at me now. Retired with 2200 pesos per month that disappear on groceries, water and electricity, pretty much.  Groceries that don’t last me the month and then I have to hustle. I sell cigarettes and coffee and that’s how I manage to eat one decent meal a day. My husband used to smoke before and get cigarettes. But unfortunately, him and our only son died during COVID because of that damn disease. Now, I’m still picking up their groceries at the bodega store, until they realize it and this also helps. I don’t like to cheat, but it helps until they find out or for as long as God wants me on this Earth, hijo.”
  • “Yeh, it’s hard profe, we have to hustle to get by,” I said embarrassed by the shame she had when telling me her life story.
  • “Just imagine. The only thing I ever did in my life was teach. I don’t know how to do anything else. I’ve never run a business and I live on the 4th floor so I can’t even set up a little shop in front of my house. I used to help kids to pass their university entry exams and managed to make a little bit, but after COVID-19, everyone could get into university and they don’t need me anymore. Plus, instead of studying, students buy their teachers out and then get good grades or get a pass. Anyway, mijo, that’s life. I’ll leave you, you must have things to do. Thanks so much for everything. I don’t know how to thank you.”
  • “Wait profe, take a few things,” I said, and I prepared a couple of plastic bags with some of the shopping I’d done.

I put in a bit of rice, another little bit of beans, half of the chives I’d bought and a packet of croquettes, as well as 10 eggs.

  • “No niño no, how can I accept this? That cost you a fortune! You’re crazy,” she said, putting her hands behind her back.
  • “Please,” I said while I gently took her hands and put the bags in them, thinking that a misery shared is easier to endure.

She took the bags and pressed them to her chest, she gave me a kiss on the cheek and I felt like I was walking on cloud 9 (I’ve never felt so much gratitude in a gesture) and lowering her eyes again, she slowly walked out of the apartment, while I watched her leave and mumbled, without wanting to:

  • Helen of Troy…
  • “What did you say?” she asked turning back. “That’s what the boys used to call me behind my back, they thought I didn’t know, but a teacher always knows what’s going on with her students one way or another. You were my student, of course you were,” she said while a tear escaped her withered eyes.

I couldn’t take it anymore and closed the door. Maybe I was a little impolite at the end, but I’m a little too big for tragic scenes and her tear was already inviting my own to run down my cheek. It’s sad to get old and I’m becoming more sentimental. No, I didn’t want to cry with Helen of Troy.

Read more from the diary of Lorenzo Martin Martinez here.

Lorenzo Martin Martines

I am one more Cuban living his 5th decade of life. I am a worker, educated, lover of the family and of my land. But it happens that I am also loyal and faithful to my ideals, committed to life, and above all I use the ability to think that God gave me. These are characteristics that make my thinking totally incompatible with the ideology promulgated by the Havana regime, with lies and hypocrisy. In view of this situation, which is already traumatic, I write this diary as a form of catharsis. I write it from my deepest ideals, from my guts. If reading some truths seem too harsh, imagine living them.

2 thoughts on “<strong>Helen of Troy in Cuba</strong>

  • A well written but very sad story indeed, unfortunately one that is repeated over and over present times, what a tragedy, 42 yrs of loyalty to a system to become the next thing to a begger in your *golden yrs*

  • A very sad story, but also beautiful persons

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